In about a third of his story, “EO”‘s hero – a small gray donkey – runs into a forest. It’s foreign territory for this enchanting beast who once performed in a circus and is accustomed to befriending humans. It’s also an important destination for EO, who embarks on an astonishing and illuminating journey that derives its name from the sounds it sometimes makes, and that says a lot about both this mournful animal and our utterly vulgar world.
Directed by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, who co-wrote the film with his wife Ewa Piaskowska, “EO” follows six Sardinian donkey-like protagonists on a seemingly familiar and classic road. Stories of traveling animals, whether far-flung or more figurative, have fueled works of fiction from “Black Beauty” to “Bambi” to “Lassie Come-Home.” While shedding tears, such stories tend to be optimistic when brought to the screen (especially in Hollywood) and turn into incredible adventures of animals who endure various dangers and atrocities on their way to their predicted happy ending.
“EO” takes a different narrative route, starting with the abrupt opening of deep-toned red images of EO and his manager Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) in front of the audience. It’s not clear what it is, but the saturated color, explosions of ominous music, and the eerie display of upturned hooves show the worst, maybe a mishap or maybe just a catchy trick. Whatever the truth, EO soon finds himself upright and on the move, heading towards his destiny, crossing national borders, traveling in and out of danger, and encountering a variety of animals, both wild and domesticated, as well as a host of humanity.
Many of the animals EO encounters have been domesticated, including a menacing junk dog (played by the filmmakers’ German shepherd Bufon) and a camel that was removed from the circus early after protests like EO. animal rights activists. Later, EO moves into a farm where he barns alongside a white stallion whose privileged status does not protect him from human desires and designs. The stallion is groomed with care, almost affection; at the same time restrained and worked. To borrow from Orwell, all animals can be equal, but only because of their instrumental value to humans.
EO enters the forest one night after a drunk and exuberant Kasandra visits him at another farm where he now lives. “May all your dreams come true,” she tells EO, who is alone in an outdoor paddock. She gives him a carrot muffin, (brutally) encourages him to “be happy,” but she leaves soon after. As the camera holds the EO in medium close-up, the EO makes a rustling sound and a deep horn sound fills the music, as if heralding a change in tone. Within seconds, she’s running down a road and nearly crashing into a car (it’s making a distinctive horn sound), only to veer into an imaginary woodland.
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This sprint from farm to road to forest marks a critical transition for EO, the shift from culture to nature. Up until this episode, EO has always been with people who control every aspect of his being. They feed and guide him, restrain and tie him, caress him, but they also pull the reins and threaten him with a switch. His treatment is as varied as the people he encounters, but always controlled in some way, whether led by gentle hands or rude. Now, for the first and only time in the movie, EO is truly immersed in the world of wild animals. Free.
As the camera moves with EO, the score’s staccato notes echo its soft clatter as the donkey travels into a new and alien realm. The dark forest is in turn deceptive and threatening, filled with eerie beauty, and evokes other tales that once began with. Just after EO enters the forest, there is a close-up of a frog moving down a shimmering river, followed by another shot of a fat spider running on an invisible string. (Digital cinematography reveals every crystalline detail.) In the next shot, the spider is now near a web, a modest but critical index of animal dominance.
“EO” is inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 drama “Au Damaged Balthazar,” the only film about the life and troubles of a donkey that Skolimowski says made him cry. The otherworldly, fairy-tale nature of EO’s time in the woods echoes a sequence in another masterpiece, “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), Charles Laughton’s dark surreal drama about a murderous preacher hunting down two young children. In the long, heartbreaking sequence from that movie, the boys escape from the preacher by the river in a rowboat that transports them to a dreamlike landscape inhabited by some of the same species EO encountered.
This allusion to “Hunter’s Night” can be seen as a cinematic tribute, as one great filmmaker nods to another. I think this also speaks to Skolimowski’s toughness in “EO”, his lack of sentimentality, and the fact that his donkey is finally very different from Balthazar, a creature that Bresson describes as “all holy and an ass”. There is no “and” with EO, which is only and always a donkey, and in this world – and in this world – a world full of mystery, yes, but also full of brute reality. It is not in vain that EO passes by some ancient headstones written in Hebrew at one point in the forest.
A wolf howl ceases as EO stands near one of these tombs. It’s a beautiful, non-threatening creature because in this movie – as in “Hunter’s Night”, which refers to “hungry wolves” in sheep’s clothing – the biggest threat is humans. A few seconds after the wolf’s howl (heralds another change of tone and expression), thin beams of green light begin to scan the image. A green laser dot glides on EO’s back, but when the gunshots ring, he becomes the fallen wolf. The film cuts EO in long shot and then steps in, stopping the camera in his eye before scrolling down to reveal a dying wolf.
Skolimowski often shows EO observing other animals with his huge, unreadable donkey eyes, often shown in close-up. In some cases, he and other animals alter their gaze, creating a complex gaze circuit that remains rightfully enigmatic. While he watches, humans and other beings sometimes lurk around EO’s perimeter, but in the strongest scenes he alone sees the galloping horses, the running ants, and in a premonition scene the pigs squawking pathetically in a truck. Part of the movie’s strength is that EO doesn’t interpret what he sees, but instead insists that he has a place in the world beyond human understanding.
“EO” never gets the self-flattering idea that humans can actually recognize animals. Instead, whether in the jungle or on a farm, EO remains intrinsically and stubbornly mysterious. Including Kasandra nods, quickens her steps, runs and dodges, responds and, of course, stares. Loved, abused and ignored. Their looks from beginning to end reveal nothing, which should not be misunderstood as an absence. Instead, it’s the unknown that makes the animal an animal – what makes EO a flesh and blood part of a natural order, the very thing humans are constantly trying to subdue only to destroy.